The sure sign of a great idea is when some big gorilla steals it from you.
Inventors+ Who Changed the World and Got Screwed in Return
By Karl Smallwood, Mike Floorwalker
As we’ve discussed before, just because your hard work and perseverance led you to create something that changes the world, it doesn’t mean that you’ll get fame, fortune, or the slightest bit of recognition out of it. In fact, some inventors get so little credit that we completely forgot about them in our previous article, and since we really don’t like angering the ghosts of people who could probably invent a way to punch us from beyond the grave, here they are.
#6. Siegel and Shuster, Superman’s Creators
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman, the most famous superhero ever, perhaps with the exception of Spider-Man or that kid who changes the channel with his eyes in X2.
Debuting in 1938, Superman was an instant success. DC Comics soon followed up the “man in underpants punches criminals” concept with Batman, and that was it, there was no turning back: Siegel and Shuster’s creation had started a multibillion-dollar industry that is still going strong today, spawning toys, T-shirts, and, oh yeah, some of the highest-grossing movies of all time.
Nice one, Siegel and Shuster!
Alan Light “Take it from us, kids: Work hard, change the world, and you too can see absolutely no reward from it!”
But Then They Got Screwed
“Nice one, Siegel and Shuster” is exactly what DC must have said, in a sarcastic tone, when the duo famously sold them all rights to Superman for a measly $130, a check that’s now ironically worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
At the time, no one suspected that the guy in blue pajamas that they’d been drawing would turn into a cultural icon — so when he did, and Siegel and Shuster continued getting squat, the pair embarked on perhaps the longest clusterfuck in copyright history.
The duo spent the better part of their lives unsuccessfully trying to reclaim some part of their creation, only to be rebuffed time and time again. While DC raked in billions from Superman alone, Siegel and Shuster lived the lives of paupers. They were given a yearly pension in the late 1970s by Warner Bros. (which had purchased DC), but only because the studio couldn’t afford the bad publicity with a Superman movie on the way.
In 1999, three years after Siegel died, his family successfully won the rights to his half of his creation. A happy ending, right? Nope! This meant dick to Warner Bros., who still refused to pay them a penny, leaving them to fight in court for another 10 fucking years. And the superdickery continues: More recently, documents disappeared from Siegel’s daughter’s attorney’s office and somehow wound up in the hands of Warner Bros. executives.
#5. Philo T. Farnsworth, the Farm Boy Who Invented Television
Philo Farnsworth, besides having the supreme honor of inspiring a Futurama character, was a serial inventor with a list of credited patents longer than his forehead.
Among those patents was the one that made television possible: an “image dissector” that could capture images as a series of lines to be displayed electronically. If that isn’t impressive enough for you, consider the fact that Farnsworth came up with the idea at age 14, while growing up on a farm in Idaho, and first demonstrated it at 21, in 1927. If that didn’t make you feel bad about yourself, it should have.
But Then He Got Screwed
When the young inventor applied for a patent at age 20, David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America took notice. Radio had a pretty cozy spot at the center of the American living room at this point, and Sarnoff wasn’t interested in letting that change. And if it did, then he would at least make sure that RCA would be the one getting rich from it.
Sarnoff kept Farnsworth tied in a series of legal battles over the next decade using a number of bullshit tactics, likehiring a Russian inventor to spy on him or using said inventor’s earlier patents (which they could never get to work) to argue that he had invented TV. At one point Sarnoff just said “Fuck it” and started making TVs without paying Farnsworth. RCA was eventually forced to pay him a one-time $1 million licensing fee, but it wasn’t worth the emotional stress that had left the man crippled.
Then the whole television business was put on hold when the ’40s rolled around and the government told everyone to focus on building things that could kill Germans. The final blow came when Farnsworth’s patents expired just as World War II ended … and, what do you know, television sales skyrocketed. RCA, or anyone else for that matter, no longer had to even pretend to give a shit about paying Farnsworth for his invention.
It wasn’t until 20 years after his death that the government decided that Farnsworth probably deserved some recognition. No shit.
Following Farnsworth’s final wishes, his statue is about to insert something into Sarnoff’s anus.
#4. Edwin H. Armstrong, the Father of FM Radio
When is the last time you listened to AM radio? Intentionally? The sound quality is so bad that most of the programming is reduced to things that already sound like shit, like conservative talk radio or a single, never-ending religious sermon in Spanish.
The much superior FM was invented by Edwin Armstrong, who created a system to reduce interference across radio bands in the 1910s. He continued his lifelong vendetta against crappy sound in the ’20s, when he came up with frequency modulation (FM) as a way to reduce static. We will now reiterate that he developed all this technology nearly 100 years ago, and it’s still present in all modern radios.
But Then He Got Screwed
Things seemed to be going swimmingly for Armstrong for a while, but it was at this point that a remarkably smug asshole came into the picture.
Yes, David fucking Sarnoff from RC-fucking-A proceeded to mess with the life of yet another world-changing inventor. Sarnoff had built his empire with AM radio, so he decided that if FM was the way of the future, then he’d do anything possible to pull a John Connor on that future. Since Armstrong wouldn’t relinquish his patent, Sarnoff made sure that RCA not only stopped supporting the development of the new technology, but actively tried to stop it.
In 1937, Armstrong used money from his own pocket to build the very first FM radio station. Another followed, then another, until by the mid ’40s a string of stations known as the Yankee Network were busy convincing everyone of the superiority of FM, just by existing. And then it all stopped.
In a dick move of epic proportions, Sarnoff successfully lobbied the FCC to move the FM band to a different place on the dial, from 42 to 50 MHz to 88 to 108 MHz. While there were somewhat valid technical reasons for this, a happy side effect for RCA was that it made all of Armstrong’